How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
We at Foreign Affairs have recently published a number of articles on the future of the Chinese regime. Those articles sparked a heated debate, so we decided to ask a broad pool of experts to state whether they agree or disagree with the following statement and to rate their confidence level about that answer:
The current Chinese regime will not survive the next decade without major reform.
SALVATORE BABONES is Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence level 10 Unfortunately, repressive regimes are very stable. It is reform that creates uncertainty.
YUN-HAN CHU is Distinguished Research Fellow of the Institute of Political Science at Academia Sinica and Professor of Political Science at National Taiwan University.
Disagree, Confidence level 9 The regime is likely to carve out its own path to a non-Western model of maintaining political legitimacy and governability.
WARREN I. COHEN is Distinguished University Professor, Emeritus at UMBC.
Disagree, Confidence level 6 I have listened to friends—who know more about internal Chinese affairs than I do—predict the fall of the government or its need to reform or fall for many years, and nothing much has happened. I don't expect any radical change over the next decade, but can hardly predict with confidence.
LARRY DIAMOND is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, where he directs the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.
Agree, Confidence level 7 I am not sure that failure will come exactly within the next ten years, but without major political reform, Chinese communist rule is doomed. There will be a crisis and it will collapse, if not within ten years, then very probably within 15.
ELIZABETH C. ECONOMY is C. V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Disagree, Confidence level 7 One has to ask: What constitutes major reform? In some respects, the current anti-corruption campaign and other efforts to legitimize the Chinese Communist Party might already be seen as major political reform. The statement gives too little guidance in this regard. Beijing can probably get by with continued gradual economic reform, tweaks to the political system, and some improvements in the social welfare net for at least a decade. Perhaps reform will be additive, and hundreds of small reforms will constitute major reform. Of course, if all else fails, the Party can always turn to anti-western or anti-Japanese nationalism and military adventurism to sustain its existence.
M. TAYLOR FRAVEL is Associate Professor of political science and a member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Disagree, Confidence level 3
SEBASTIAN HEILMANN is the Founding Director of the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin and professor for the political economy of China at the University of Trier, Germany.
Disagree, Confidence level 7 The Chinese system still has considerable resources to cushion an economic decline and to address social tensions. The system is under stress and, without reforms, it will become more vulnerable to economic and political tensions. But any collapse is still some ways off.
YANZHONG HUANG is Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations and Associate Professor at the John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University.
Disagree, Confidence level 7 China is facing numerous internal and external challenges. Some of them (such as corruption) may threaten the very survival of the political system. However, we should not underestimate the capacity of the regime to “muddle through” various crises and adapt to new circumstances in the short run even without undertaking major reform efforts.
YASHENG HUANG is Professor of Political Economy and International Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
Neutral, Confidence level 6
YUKON HUANG is a Senior Associate in the Carnegie Asia Program.
Disagree, Confidence level 8
RICHARD KATZ is Editor of The Oriental Economist Report.
Disagree, Confidence level 4 There may be social unrest if growth slows too much and too many young men are both unmarried and out of work. But there is no alternative government waiting in the wings, and so it would take a party split to bring down the regime.
DAVID M. LAMPTON is George and Sadie Hyman Professor of China Studies and Director of the SAIS-China program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Disagree, Confidence level 7 If by "major reform" one means major political system transformation or descent into chaos, this is highly unlikely—unlikely because the fear of chaos, combined with regime resilience and anticipated economic growth, can delay the day when the political system will need to radically adjust.
ERIC X. LI is a venture capitalist and political scientist in Shanghai.
Disagree, Confidence level 8 The Chinese regime will likely survive the next decade, and perhaps longer, without major reform. However, its long-term survival and success will depend on effective and continuous reforms. Judging from its recent track record, the Chinese Communist Party's ability to carry out reforms is almost unmatched among major governing institutions in the world. As such, the smart money should probably be on the reasonable success of the party's reform agenda and the resulting long-term stability and prosperity of modern China.
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL is a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy and Global Economy and Development at the Brookings Institution.
Neutral, Confidence level 8 I have checked "neutral" because, as is often the case in such polls, the wording is very imprecise. What qualifies as “major reform” (as versus necessary adaptation)? There is no question that the Chinese Communist Party will evolve over the coming ten years and has proven itself very resilient. It will have to carry out major reforms if the economy is to become efficient, innovative, and dynamic. But the party can still survive through substantial (not “major”) reform—albeit with far less satisfactory economy results. The poll does not lend itself to drawing this distinction.
PERRY LINK is Chancellorial Chair for Innovation in Teaching Across Disciplines at the University of California, Riverside.
Neutral, Confidence level 5 I have the sense that China is nearing crisis and believe that Xi Jinping, when he came to power, had that sense, too. China's economy is beginning to cool, the urban air continues to worsen, elites are looking to emigrate, protests for and awareness of “rights” have spread among the common people, and new social media have made it much harder than before to control information. Xi arrived feeling that he had to “do something” and, lacking the imagination (or perhaps courage) to be inventive, opted for a turn back toward aspects of Maoism—which he, at least, knew. But whether that turn will bring stability (society has greatly changed from the 1950s, and Xi is no Mao) is a large question.
The word ”reform” in the question is ambiguous. Ever since Deng Xiaoping's “reform and opening,” the word in Chinese Communist Party culture has been understood as change in a more liberal direction. Originally, though, "re-" and "form" meant only "change shape”—in whatever direction. If I take your question in that sense, I would be much more confident that shape-changing is likely on the way. But the new shape will not necessarily be more liberal. It might well be a military or a hypernationalist dictatorship; if the CCP falls, the successor regime might ground itself in a millenarian ideology of the kind that has deep roots in Chinese political culture. (The White Lotus, the Taipings, the Falungong, and the CCP itself are all examples, broadly speaking). Moreover an interval between regimes could be messy.
WINSTON LORD is Chairman Emeritus, the International Rescue Committee. He was U.S. Ambassador to China from 1985-1989 and Assistant Secretary of State from 1993-1997.
Strongly Agree, Confidence level 8
BAOZHEN LUO is Assistant Professor in the sociology department at Western Washington University.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence level 10 I provided my answer based upon my speculation of what the surveyors intended by the phrase "major reform." I speculate that they mean "major reform" as a major qualitative shift of the political economic direction of the current Chinese regime with revolutionary consequences. Do they suggest a drastic reform moving toward the Western rhetoric of democracy? If so, my answer is absolutely “strongly disagree.” The current Chinese regime does not need to engage in this kind of major reform. What the Chinese regime needs to do is to continue what it has done during the past three decades—constantly transforming its leadership by being adaptive and innovative, steering economic development to the next phase of the “new normal,” continuing the development of a well-rounded public welfare system, taking global responsibilities, increasing Chinese citizens’ involvement public decision-making, etc. In that sense, the Chinese regime needs to continue to engage in deep reforms, as Premier Li Keqiang has clearly articulated in the report on the Work of the Government at the 2015 National People’s Congress and many other occasions.
RODERICK MACFARQUHAR is the Leroy B. Williams Professor of History and Political Science at Harvard University.
Agree, Confidence level 6
ANDREW J. NATHAN is Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University.
Strongly Disagree, Confidence level 10 I assume "major reform" in the question means a fundamental political reform that would get rid of the Leninist one-party system. Lots of other important reforms are being undertaken, but this one is not on the table for the coming decade and I believe the regime will survive without it.
JOHN OSBURG is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Rochester.
Disagree, Confidence level 7 Without reforms, the current regime will be increasingly vulnerable to the ripple effects of a major crisis, be it environmental, financial, or perhaps some politically charged incident that takes off on social media. However, the simple fact that there is no viable, organized opposition to the CCP makes it unlikely that it will fall anytime soon, regardless of whether or not the Xi regime can successfully implement reforms.
MINXIN PEI is Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College.
Strongly Agree, Confidence level 8 The Communist Party faces unprecedented challenges ahead: a structural slowdown of the economy that may be the harbinger of the middle-income trap, huge debts that will likely further hurt economic growth, environmental catastrophe, corruption, division within the elite class, and rising demands for better governance and social justice from the Chinese public. Without reform, the party will have to increasingly rely on repression to stay in power. This strategy will only further alienate Chinese society and sow division within the ruling elite as the costs of repression spiral out of control.
ELIZABETH J. PERRY is Henry Rosovsky Professor of Government and Director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute.
Neutral, Confidence level 5 The question is what kind of reform we're talking about. Clearly, major financial reforms are needed (and are evidently being undertaken) in order to sustain a healthy level of economic growth. But, as Samuel Huntington pointed out long ago, political reforms are deeply threatening to the survival of authoritarian regimes. Huntington famously observed that political reform is more difficult to carry out successfully than revolution.
ELY RATNER is Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).
Disagree, Confidence level 3 We should probably disabuse ourselves of the notion that economic growth is necessary to sustain the Chinese Communist Party.
J. STAPLETON ROY is a Distinguished Scholar and Founding Director Emeritus of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Disagree, Confidence level 6 China's rapid economic development over the past two and a half decades has created a large new middle class that is well educated, has ready access to the outside world, and has substantial disposable income. This social transformation in China is increasing domestic pressures for modernization of the political system through an evolutionary process that does not threaten stability. These pressures will grow over the next decade but are not likely to threaten regime survival because of fears of chaos, the absence of viable political alternatives, and the party's control of the security apparatus. Unpredictable events, such as a sharp economic downturn, could alter this calculus. The key question over the next decade is not so much regime survival, but rather whether key elements within the leadership group, whether of this generation or the next one, will recognize that gradual reform is preferable to facing an acute crisis further down the road.
ORVILLE HICKOK SCHELL is an American writer, academic, and activist.
Strongly Agree, Confidence level 4 There have been few regimes in history that are in the process of such radical self-reinvention as China now that have not undergone radical change. And, gradual, guided change is almost always better than chaotic revolutionary overthrow.
ADAM SEGAL is Maurice R. Greenberg Senior Fellow for China Studies and Director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program.
Disagree, Confidence level 6 My standard refrain to this question has always been: The Chinese Communist Party will not collapse soon, but if it does tomorrow, I will tell you I told you so. With no organized opposition, no significant factionalism at the top, and the urban rich still seeing their interests as aligned with the current order, the regime can continue to reform the economy but keep the one-party state. The uncertainty comes from some event—an ecological disaster being the most likely—that connects local protest to national change.
DAVID SHAMBAUGH is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs; Director, China Policy Program
Agree, Confidence level 8 "Major reform" must include political reform. More economic reforms are insufficient to ensure the Chinese Communist Party's longevity, in my opinion. Moreover, further economic reforms will also be impeded unless there are accompanying political reforms.
SUSAN SHIRK is Chair of the 21st Century China Program and Ho Miu Lam Professor of China and Pacific Relations at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at UC San Diego.
Strongly Agree, Confidence level 8 My answer includes legal and governance reforms as well as economic ones.
JAMES STEINBERG is Dean of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and Professor of Social Science, International Affairs, and Law at Syracuse University.
Disagree, Confidence level 7 My answer would change if there is a significant exogenous shock—a major environmental or public health disaster, or a natural disaster with ineffective governmental response. I interpret "major reform" to mean something beyond the kinds of reforms proposed at the Third Plenum.
JEFFREY WASSERSTROM is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine, where he also holds a courtesy appointment in Law.
Disagree, Confidence level 1 The problem with predictions like this is at least two-fold. First, we have only limited information on what exactly is going on in the halls of power in Beijing, as well as about the extent of opposition. Second, the position of the Chinese regime is likely to be strengthened or weakened by things that happen beyond the borders of the People’s Republic of China. Since 1989, the instability of the world and the problems that have beset many countries that have transitioned away from one-party rule or dictatorship, has been a gift that keeps giving for a regime that bases some of its right to rule on the idea that the alternative to it is likely to be chaos and national decline. Major reform is needed, but the Communist Party keeps defying predictions of its demise, so I don't think it makes sense, even now, despite all the problems it faces, to insist it will only survive if it engages in such reform. Of course, I have limited confidence even in this prediction, due to lack of information about internal affairs and the impossibility of knowing what the international context will be like in the years to come.
XIAO QIANG is an Adjunct Professor at the School of Information and the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of China Digital Times.
Neutral, Confidence level 8
DINGXIN ZHAO is Professor in the Department of Sociology, the University of Chicago.
Neutral, Confidence level 10 It does need reform to survive, but the phrase "major reform" is too vague. The regime may take a piecemeal reform approach, but cumulatively they could be major.